The first arresting image of Joyland is filled with blood. When Haider (Ali Junejo) arrives home after bringing his sister-in-law to the hospital, he is forced by his father to perform a ritual sacrifice (qurbani). His hands shake as he holds a goat down, his father spewing instructions offscreen, the camera suffocatingly close to his face as he wrangles the animal. When his wife Mumtaz (Rasti Faruq) sees his hesitation, she instinctually grabs the knife from his hands and does the dirty work for him. As the red pools on the tile and his father looks at him with disappointment, Haider merely holds onto the goat’s lifeless body in shame.
Haider is familiar with this feeling because he lives in a world intent on emasculating him. Director Saim Sadiq places these forces within the frame but out of focus, like an omnipresent specter that haunts his day-to-day life. Unemployed and childless, he spends most of his time at home taking care of his brother’s daughters while Mumtaz makes a living for them. His wheelchair-bound father pesters him about wanting a grandson, burdening him with continuing the Rama lineage. When he gets a chance at employment, the promise of eradicating this insecurity, the chance to live life and not just sleepwalk through it, is too sweet to pass by.
Nevermind that he’ll be backup for the trans starlet Biba (Alina Khan) at an erotic dance theater, a place that’s considered taboo by their household. Nevermind that able-bodied men laugh at his poor performance at the audition. Nevermind that Biba calls him Juliet — albeit an act of flirtation — after learning he played the role in high school. At this point, anything is better than being confined in a home that doesn’t want you.
Much has already been said about how Joyland explores sexuality and desire in Pakistan, particularly by exposing the unequal power dynamics through gender relations. Haider and Mumtaz live out twin lives suffocated by social conventions. Haider’s employment coerces Mumtaz into sacrificing her job as a makeup artist to fulfill his roles at home, a tension further complicated when Haider develops a romantic relationship with Biba. By tying together Haider, Mumtaz, and Biba’s lives, Sadiq exposes how Pakistani society coerces men and women into a tug-of-war for their liberation.
But what is often left out of the discussion is how Sadiq ties sexual discovery and autonomy to issues of capital and labor. Haider only begins exploring his sexuality when he becomes a provider for the family, when his days bring him beyond the confines of the household and the neighborhood that observe their family’s every move like a panopticon.
Midway through the film, after their first successful performance, Haider articulates this emptiness to Biba for the first time:
Sometimes, I feel like I have nothing that’s my own.
Everything feels borrowed or…stolen from someone else.
In a world that is co-opted by late capitalism, Haider’s employment buys him time for himself and ownership allows him to develop a sense of self-direction. Biba finds herself on a similar journey to Haider’s, but the thirst for stardom stems from a deeper need for survival. Her desire to perform beyond her intermission slot first seems to be an appeal to vanity, but Sadiq reveals that it emerges from a more urgent need for safety and a chance at experiencing womanhood without the threat of death. For Biba, performing onstage brings her closer to the woman she wants to be, to saving up enough money for her gender confirmation surgery, and further away from the gun-wielding men who threaten her life and reduce her to a fetishistic object in clubs.
Around Biba, Haider is able to fulfill the masculine imperatives that he has always struggled to satisfy. But in pursuing this relationship, Haider begins to ignore his partnership with Mumtaz — whose tendencies as a provider slowly atrophy. Without capital and confined to the home, she begins to feel suffocated by the sacrifices demanded of her as a caretaker, especially once she becomes pregnant with the family’s first grandson. Even a trip to Joyland, a nearby carnival, offers only temporary respite after her checkup, its rides injecting excitement but ultimately stuck to only one place.
Lahore, the populated city where Joyland is set, is depicted as an inescapable patriarchal space, its inhabitants unable to imagine a world beyond the prejudices they’ve inherited from their ancestors. Doorframes and windows in their home become boxes by which characters are confined to their societal functions. Amidst a city of unwelcome observers, Mumtaz slowly begins to fade into invisibility, as her needs grow unmet. She packs her bags and attempts to leave her life behind, but instead finds herself standing still at the station, a sea of people in motion while she remains minuscule and paralyzed. How does one escape the fate handed to them by biology and society?
It is fitting that one of the final images of Joyland calls back to the birth and death at the beginning. In refusing to satisfy the patriarchal demands and oppressive beliefs of the Rana men, Mumtaz resists becoming a glorified surrogate and awakens the family to the ways they are all slowly killing each other to sustain arbitrary traditions. Haider, who has mostly been sleepwalking through life, finally gets the courage (and the money) to escape Lahore to fulfill his promise to both Biba and Mumtaz. Dwarfed by the ocean outside of his hometown, he finally understands what the two have been chasing their entire lives — a release from judgment and harm; a place where silence isn’t complicit but restorative; one where he can risk sinking so he can learn how to float.